As we’ve shared how God is moving among the Roma in Europe, the story is getting around. But, at first hearing, many people still don’t know to whom the term “Roma” refers. There’s another word often used that’s far more familiar. So we’ve been asked, even by the communications people in our own mission, “Wouldn’t we communicate more clearly by using the well-known term “Gypsy”?”
We’ve thought it over, and our firm answer is “No!” We’ve decided that, as an organization committed to Christian mission, we will self-consciously employ “Roma,” taking the extra time, if needed, to explain. (Our Catalyst Team advises a similar approach to language referencing disability in a marginalizing way: words like “retarded,” “crippled,” etc. Namely, don’t use them.) Before concluding that this is about “political correctness” (whether appropriate or inappropriate), please hear me out.
The “G-word” IS an extremely offensive term. But (as with a common term for “black” now properly considered unprintable), it’s widely known, and even used by some people within the group (at least among themselves) – even if they don’t appreciate “outsiders” doing so. But our reason for refusing the term is NOT based on the offense it causes. It goes deeper.
First, we are firmly convinced that the gospel meets people – each and every individual – exactly “where they are.” And that the gospel is “translatable” into every culture/people group (see the insightful work of Lamin Sanneh on this). By this, we mean that there is no ethnicity or culture that people have to STOP being or belonging to in order to accept the Gospel (and, also, that there is no culture that is above critique by that same gospel).
But it is NOT true that the Gospel translates equally well to “created identities” that are used to label “others”; these are not, after all, real, however compelling or widespread they may be.
Second, we have affirmed that in “collaboration” we need to hear the actual “voices” of people. We need to prioritize the hearing of statements in the “first person,” particularly by those to whom we are reaching out.
So we asked our friend Miki, from Roma Networks, a Roma evangelical pastor from Serbia, about what term should be used: “Actually, I would have to say Roma. That’s the name for real people. Gypsies, it’s a stereotype. In the Roma community, they say to themselves, “We are Roma.” “Rom” means ‘man,’ and “Roma” means ‘people,’ actually. “Gypsy” comes from other people giving this name to Roma people. When (as best we know) Roma people came to Europe from India after the year 1000, they were given a lot of names, and one of these names was “Egyptians,” because some people mistakenly thought that’s where they came from. Then this name just got shortened… and it has nothing to do with the Roma people. When Europeans saw people with a different color, different language, different dressing, different tradition, different forms of community, they just started to call them tsigani.
Since “Gypsy” is something that other people call Roma people. My question would be who has the right to say who I am, as a Roma? Do other people have the right to tell me who I am, or should I tell who I am to others? It’s very important that people know the truth, not just make up their own story. And as much as we need to educate other people about the Roma, we have to educate the Roma about themselves, because we don’t know our history. Nobody has the right to say who we are, just because they have a theory, but we have to have solid information about that. (This is why we are so enthusiastic about the work our friends at The Good Story are doing to help magnify the Roma’s voice, to give them a platform to tell their story.)
What about the fact that some Roma call themselves by this name? That’s irrelevant.
Particularly when there is pernicious labeling – stigmatization – the labels often become internalized, the “constructed identities” created for the marginalized begin to seep in and become perceived internal realities.
So even if some Roma use that term, we won’t. Is there something inappropriate in giving more honor to someone than they give themselves? In valuing their history more than they do? In valuing them more highly than they value themselves? Not at all! That, to us, is Christlikeness.
As followers of Jesus, on mission with Him, we believe that we must renounce complicity in all processes of marginalization, including how we use language. We believe in showing honor to people and cultures by using the language that they would use to describe themselves. There we may find a divinely prepared starting point for the gospel message to be planted and take root.